an evolved response…

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

Some attribute this axiom to Oscar Wilde. Others give Will Rogers the credit. We may never know who said it first but humans have been surviving on first impressions since at least 400,000 years ago (about the time Cousin Neanderthal thought they had a better idea about how to play the game). A rapidly made assessment of potential threats is one of the few instincts we have not modernly worked to repress.

Human-timeline

Also lost to history is whether the earliest true homo sapiens believed they were something greater than other animals. Our evolved conceit, however, suggests a test. If we’re special what proof have we?

The short list is: the opposable thumb, tool use, language, and the domestication of fire. Well, the front paw of the koala has two opposable digits so we’re beat there. Lower primates make and use tools; some species of birds and fish do as well. Strike two.

In May of this year, Gavagai AB – a language technology company based in Stockholm – announced that they plan to use AI to decipher the language of dolphins. Four years from now they may have more to say than, “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”

That leaves the domestication of fire and, while still quite impressive is says more about the flame than it does of us. If it is what distinguishes us from beasts and we one day discover we’re not alone in that distinction – what then?

Without being pejorative of them most animals can be described as governed by stimulus and response. With this in mind it is our reasoning that sets us apart (if we must be apart). The first impression instinct can guard us from harm but it is not infallible.

I know my share of people who’ve seemed intelligent at first and later demonstrated themselves to be foolish or ignorant – sometimes dangerously so. Everyone does. Fortunately, I’ve met and learned to appreciate a number of folk who I did not initially think I would want to know.

More dramatically, about two weeks ago a moving car hit me. I had enough time to realize an impact was unavoidable and my last thought before it occurred was something akin to, “Redistribute the momentum.” After that I did not start thinking again until I was picking myself up off the road. I attribute walking away from the accident with nothing more than four lacerations and an abrasion or two to a conscious shift to unconscious impulse.

I’m all in and all in favor of instincts.

First impressions, when instinctually based, are a useful tool provided by evolution. Our capacity for reason utilized when we are safe is one of the faculties that can differentiate us from the Animal Kingdom. After the fact of any potential danger, rather than accepting the dictates of any instinct or stimulus/response we should consider what wisdom the experience may provide. If there was in fact no danger we should not adopt an oppositional view.

We always have a second chance to evaluate a first impression. If the impetus for a point of view is just a gut feeling and we go with that alone we haven’t participated in making that first impression at all. It’s out of our much-vaunted hands, thumbs included.

An instinct may give us reason to form an impression. Our rationale should decide what form it takes. Let other figure their own out but we each have the opportunity, in every moment, to make of our own first impressions whatever we need them to be – as tools. Domesticating them should be easier than making and tending a fire.


It’s been a long time…

In Star Trek: Communicator № 149 (April/May 2004), Jimmy Diggs¹ presented adversaries of The Next Generation as avatars of the Seven Deadly Sins. He was to have contributed a Pakled story to an anthology based on this premise and published by Gallery Books in March 2010.

Sin

Romulans were presented as Pride and the Klingons as Wrath. Not surprisingly, the Ferengi were featured in the Greed chapter. The Cardassians, who often alluded to paucity and lost glory, personified Envy. At this point, in my opinion, the analogy somewhat breaks down. Gluttony was illustrated by way of the Borg. Diggs had suggested Larry Niven’s Kzinti² for Lust but the anthology went with the Terrans of the Mirror Universe.

Last and least, the representatives of Sloth were the Pakled. I’ve felt this unnecessarily elevated a minor league “villain race”; they were featured in only one episode of TNG (“Samaritan Snare”, S02E17). It is true that background performers portrayed Pakleds in about 10% of Deep Space Nine. I still find them irritating and of inferior caliber compared with the rest. Even the Ferengi were sometimes entertaining during the DS9 series.

Presumably, the vices of these seven spacefaring species are balanced by the virtues of the United Federation of Planets.

Kzin

¹ Jimmy Diggs was the writer of one episode of DS9 and six episodes of Voyager.

² The Kzinti predate the premiere of The Original Series of Star Trek by eight months, first appearing in World of IF magazine. Seven years later the two universes merged slightly in a single episode of The Animated Series (“The Slaver Weapon”, S01E14). Had Star Trek: Enterprise continued for a fifth season, executive producer Manny Coto and Jimmy Diggs planned to reintroduce Niven’s marauding space cats. The Kzinti have long been part of Star Fleet Battles, a tactical wargame, currently published by Amarillo Design Bureau. I’ve often chatted with Friend-Admiral Diggs. I know he was a player. Despite this, the aggressive feline race are not considered official “canon” in the Star Trek universe.

That said —

Last week I was musing on the Kübler-Ross model, better known as the Five Stages of Grief. Although some in the field of psychology view the construct, first proposed in On Death and Dying by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969, as scientifically flawed awareness of it is pervasive. Many do consider it a useful idea ­– a reminder that we should progress from our sorrows by and to our optimism and effort.

Imagine, instead of the most “celebrated” sins, that some of the alien species in the original series were archetypes of the stages.

It should surprise no one who has visited here that my favorite race in Star Trek has always been the Vulcans. Gene Roddenberry’s Writers/Directors Guide says of Spock:

Denial

“We now realize that Spock is capable of feeling emotion, but he denies this at every opportunity. On his own planet, to show emotion is considered the grossest of sins. He makes every effort to hide what he considers the ‘weakness’ of his half-human heredity.” — p. 14, Third Revision

From the start ­the Vulcans – or at least Spock – are explicitly the icons of Denial, the first stage of dealing with loss and grief. Some presentations of Kübler-Ross’ theory place Shock or Disbelief before Denial. In “Immunity Syndrome” (S02E19), Spock says of some other Vulcan Starfleet personnel, “Their logic would not have permitted them to believe they were being killed.”

Where the Sins construct makes Klingons Wrath, the Stages version would see them as Anger. The Orion Pirates were left out of both Diggs’ article and the anthology. Had they been included they might have been either Greed or Lust. Here they are an obvious choice for Bargaining. Both the long periods of isolationism of the Romulan Empire and their usage of cloaking devices make them reasonable candidates for Guilt/Depression.

The last stage is usually Acceptance. Hope completes some lists. The initial theatrical release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture ended with an optimistic note for the audience: “The human adventure is just beginning.”

In the final episode of TNG (“All Good Things…”, S07E25 & 26), the cosmic entity Q tells Captain Picard, “That is the exploration that awaits you. Not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.” This is sometimes mentioned as having initially been a statement of Leonard Nimoy’s adapted as a line of dialog by scriptwriters Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga.

When one considers Gene Roddenberry’s humanism and optimism it seems more than fair to presume he’d have picked humans to round out this analysis. Humans are Hope and Acceptance. At least, we may be.

And_the_adventure_2071


midnight oil…

Growing up I was not introduced to worship and faith in what I would describe as a helpful manner. That having been said, several members of my extended family were quite religious. The manner of their practice focused on the prohibitions and consequences rather than anything that could be described as love or virtue. I did get the lesson that we – human beings – were to oppose evil but there wasn’t any clear indication of an effective methodology.

Early on my experience with God distilled to an unrelenting and judgmental view of humans, in which they were essentially worthless, while giving them the loftiest of assignments. It isn’t remotely logical even to someone in grade school.

By the time I was twelve years old I divorced myself from attending church although, at that age, that wasn’t the phrase I used. I just stopped going. Theology became a cerebral, philosophical matter for me. For a time I dismissed faith as belonging to the same category as superstitious belief in fairies or magic. I did not embark on a life of deplorable behavior or debauchery. That path seemed dangerous; avoiding it was not based on the avoidance of sin. The concept of sin was also grouped with legends and fables.

As a subject theology (in a number of ways in which humanity has approached it) has stayed with me as an object of fascination. The notion of “evil” remains an idea that I’ll spend time pondering. A worthy handbook on the subject would, I think, provide 1. a concise but through definition of evil, 2. training on how to recognize it, and 3. procedures for to do when it found. Scripture and religious texts are actually fairly vague on these points – apart from praying to and praising the divine.

I have from time to time asked people how they address the first point. The most frequent answer is that evil is defined as “anything that causes harm”. On face value that makes sense but razor blade can cause harm. I wouldn’t call them evil. Given the assignment to resolutely stand against evil, usually no matter the cost – to attack it continuously until it is banished – it seems to me that evil has to be something so universally heinous that most people would agree, “Yeah. That has to go.”

From an intellectual stance and for more than a decade I used a formula in place of “evil”. What almost everyone else used that term to describe I would evaluate as a combination of stupid, crazy, and/or cruel. That does cover a wide range of objectionable behavior and wretched results. Were I to include a fourth element it would probably capture the willfully contrary and/or ignorant.

Stupidity does not require endless war; it can be “cured” with ongoing education. Insanity can be mitigated including by the hospitalization of those beyond treatment. The correction of cruelty falls in part within our education system and, failing that, our justice system. History has many example of how to correct those who deliberately oppose truth: shame, guilt, and other forms of peer pressure – resulting in exile as a last resort.

Evil would therefore be something outside those categories. I’m afraid I cannot provide Article I of a Moral Constitution. The above, I think, accounts for some of the things that evil is not. Recent research does, however, remind me that there are a few hundred named demons in past. There are fewer than 20 named demons in the Bible. Renaissance fascination with the occult provides most of the rest of the roster.

I once read that “public belial” used to be a crime. Unfortunately, I cannot find any proof of that now. Rather than working on the three-point handbook I may gradually add to a list of which demon represents what societal sin.

Belial – assholes generally; Mammon – unrestrained capitalism and obsessive greed; Baphomet – obstinate know-it-alls (à la “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.”); Dagon – anything that teaches, glorifies, or encourages poor behavior; Moloch – those who oppose and obstruct another’s effort to do an agreed upon good; Abaddon – fearmongers and those who foster enmity instead of amity; Pythius – peddlers of alternative fact and those who obscure truth.

sin-sign

In these times it is interesting to note that in 1818 Jacques Collin de Plancy gave Rimmon as the name of the demon ambassador of/to Russia. There’s another point of trivia from esoterica that I can no longer connect to a source. The above image of a symbol for sin. It is identical to one of the alchemical symbols for sulphur apart from the “rocker” at the top. Use it in good health.


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stranger, then fiction…

I am old enough to remember research before the advent of the internet. Data and inspiration for A Song Heard in the Future would have taken quite a bit longer without the worldwide web. It seems possible that some sources may never have turned up in my exploration of ancient Greek mythology. With Astral, as the current work-in-progress is set at least 550 years in the future, the process is somewhat easier. There has been, however, still some research involved.

Visiting the nearest significant library involves an hour by train and an additional half hour on foot (round trip). Topics that have informed Astral include: some of Aristotle’s views on government, Neo-Platonist metaphysics, astrophysics, forensic and police procedures, and posthumanism. Finding just a few useful details might have taken a full afternoon. Similarly, my taste for esotericism is usually unrewarded in even great bookstores.

There are, of course, two chief problems with data mining online: 1. not every page is necessarily accurate or reliable and, 2. it is too easy to find something fascinating. Some months ago, for example, while collecting details for a piece of short fiction in an upcoming anthology I found details about Keumalahayati, the 16th century Indonesian, female admiral. I’d never read about her before; I suspect that when I read more she’ll grow in my estimation as a new, old hero.

That same short story prompted digging for only a few tidbits of Indonesian religion prior to the arrival of Abrahamic faiths on the islands. I was surprised to see so many parallels to Western folklore – useful threads for the story and enjoyable due to my fondness for seeing sameness between diverse cultures.

Since the project that brought both the admiral’s career and the mythology of her not so distant ancestors to my attention involved only a few thousand words, they’ve been easy to file away for any future need or reference. More recently I have in fact fallen down the wikihole a little bit, requiring me to summon discipline.

The idea that truth can be stranger than fiction is not new – although it has been more dramatically described in the past:

who-knew.jpg

When something is unexpected and fascinating, almost regardless of how it may be presented or phrased, I think we’ll all a bit prone to rubbernecking on the information superhighway.

Within the past two weeks I have been discovering the details of a true story – from during the years of the Black Death and Europe’s witch craze. I am already resolved to both make this a novel and to let that wait its turn – until after Astral but probably before returning to work on Song. Posting about this experience – if a little obliquely – helps in setting a low priority in adapting my new discovery as a work of fiction.

ran-seven-samurai

If one imagines something like Seven Samurai (七人の侍) meets Ran (乱) — involving shifting alliances between monarchs and mercenaries, add hidden agenda on each side and occult practices on at least one — digging into this a little counts less as distraction. It can be viewed as binge watching a season of The Man in the High Castle or Stranger Things.

One very unexpected side benefit to watching this season of “Well, who knew that?” was finding something I’d been hunting off and on for at least thirteen years. In another capacity I go by DJ Zophiel, one of the characters in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Finding the sigil for the angel known as God’s spy in Hell and as the “cherubim of swiftest wing” proved impossible when I selected the alias. As it turns out, Gabriel’s got his trumpet – Zophiel could be said to have his upturned thurner horn.

sigil

The problem isn’t the wikihole but in remembering not to get stuck at the event horizon. All. In good time.


strangely familiar…

Since the release of Pokémon GO, I had been attempting to understand just why it had become a social media phenomenon. “I just like it.” That’s the most common answer given by pokénthusiasts – who are not just existing fans of the 20-year franchise enjoying a new expression of it – when asked why they play. At face value that is a perfectly reasonable explanation. Attempting to probe deeper may prompt defensive responses and/or accusations of being a hater of one type or another.

I have lately been borrowing a friend’s Pokédex to emulate their experience with the game – hatching, catching, and watching evolutions. There have not yet been any training nor any battles fought. The animation and use of color are certainly part of the appeal. The use of Google Maps in navigating the augmented reality fascinates me. First of all, it’s a very clever shortcut in coding I’m sure. It also appeals to my long-standing (and previously documented) love of maps.

Many – not all – of the creatures are cute and I cannot really claim to be immune or opposed to cute given my Pandora’s Pets creations. Like the Pets, Pokémon has a deep lore from which to draw. Admittedly, the mythology I’ve been developing for my little monsters isn’t as fast as that of Pokémon – yet. And just like the Pets, which are designed to help people with specific emotions, each of the pokémon might prompt a new thought.

One of the newest pokémon – released in Sun & Moon this past November – is Lunala, an emissary of the Moon. While preparing this post I discovered her and found myself saying, “Okay. When she’s in Pokémon GO I’ll play.” And then I found myself asking why I’d had that reaction. That is apart from her seeming particularly badass.

lunala.gif

She reminds me of Starhawk from Marvel’s original Guardians of the Galaxy comics (yet to appear in MCU films) and the Elven Man-o-war ships from the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Spelljammer campaign setting.

starhawk trim.jpg

With a sci fi novel in progress and the intent to retrieving the ancient Greek myth story from the back burner, I’m not going to let myself get distracted. A few new ideas have popped up while examining this bit of zeitgeist and they’ve been filed away. But spending a little time at the PokéStop has reminded me of a few other strange things.

Johann “Trithemius” Heidenberg was an abbot known for compiling dictionaries and writing about cryptology. History also holds him to be an occultist, chiefly due to misinterpretation of his book Steganographia (written c. 1499). The term used as the title means, in essence, the art of hiding a secret message within a presumably mundane text. Trithemius chose to present this manual as a means to summon spirits that might then be forced to transmit messages over great distances. Depending on one’s perspective, the result would be clairsentience or a worldwide mystic web.

tritemius-wheel-v-pokeball

Trithemius’ decoder wheel and a poké ball.

Most of the abbot’s contemporaries seem to have missed the point – a lesson in code – and focused on the magic. The abbot was an opponent of the historical Dr. Johann Georg Faust and Steganographia inadvertently inspired a 16th century craze: catching demons. An advisor and astrologer to both Queens Mary and Elizabeth, Dr. John Dee, was all in – even designing a mystic sigil to represent himself and certain hopes. He was the first to use the phrase “British Empire” – and then as an aspiration.

John Dee would certainly have known about a number of spirit-catcher manuals including Steganographia, Ars Goetia, and Pseudomonarchia Daemonum by Johann Weyer. The latter two grimoires provide names and descriptions for a number of demons (72 and 69, respectively) along with the advantages of summoning and binding each one. King Solomon is said to have done this to speed construction of his famous Temple. Why not by Elizabeth I to expand the reach of Britannia?

medieval-pokemon-trainer

12th century Pokémon trainer waiting on that egg to hatch.

The origin of these spirits may have been the result of a misconception but they seem to be as difficult to “put back” as the woes and evils that sprang from Pandora’s box. Goetic names turned up through the French Revolution and now are mentioned in comic books and manga, TV shows and roleplaying games. At least half a dozen names that John Dee might have mentioned to his sovereign have been used in Pokémon’s cousin – Yu-Gi-Oh!

I’ve been aware of these opposite numbers to the Shem ha-Mephorash (המפורש שם, the Qabalistic hidden name(s) of God) since 1982 but from nothing more arcane that the DragonQuest rpg by Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI). The spirits that Dee hoped to harness appear in the works of Wayne Barlowe since 1998.

In a conversation with my business partner, Leanna Renee Hieber, about all of these notions she made the connection that the Elizabethan obsession and pokémania had a lot in common.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

staryu-and-decarabia-copy

Decarabia as seen in Shakugan no Shana and Staryu from Pokémon.

Peculiar creatures and imaginary lore seem to have always been poking around the marginalia of our minds and zeitgeist. This was true when – in the mythology of the founding of ThebesCadmus fought a dragon and later became (evolved into?) one. The borders of Medieval manuscripts, including apparent wars with rabbits and snails, demonstrate that weird beasts would not disappear even given 3000 years. Pokémon may be the latest expression and if so folkfauna may evolve forever.

And we may never know why they keeping turning up, precisely why we like them, or what they mean. All this to say, I’m not completely sure that I shouldn’t at least nod a little toward all of this in Astral in some way. Hmm. I’m not completely sure I’ve a choice in the matter.

fill in the blank makes the world go round…

Not being an economist suggesting an alternative to existing answers to the problem of unlimited want v limited resources would very likely not provide a utopian blueprint. With that in mind, ideal societies are probably best left as part of the domain of satire and/or fantasy. Astral – the working title for my science fiction novel in progress – does not attempt to paint a grand and perfect future for humanity the setting. Nor is the setting a dystopia.

Blade Runner (Philip K. Dick, K. W. Jeter) mentions off-world colonies and the supposition is that they are not all people might hope. In Joss Whedon’s Firefly/Serenity we’re told, “Earth That Was could no longer sustain our numbers; we were so many.” There’s a streak of disposable planet in science fiction that my first love in the genre – Star Trek – avoided almost completely. The inhabitants of Earth had, in fact, abandoned a dangerous courtship with self-extinction and Starfleet’s mission to seek out strange new worlds was not just about mineral rights.

better-worlds

As mentioned in prior entries here, the world(s) of Astral spans about 60 solar systems. The motivation for expansion splits the difference between Earth being used up and something Neil deGrasse Tyson said about a year ago (Oct. 2015): “If you have the power to turn another planet into Earth then you have the power to turn Earth back into Earth.”

Most science fiction does not concern itself with the cost of putting fleets of ships in space and terraforming exoplanets. Again, not being an economist, I’m not planning on making any estimates in that regard. However, just as I’ve been musing on alternative political structures, the future on Earth’s colonies is not mute about the downside of capitalism and its contentious cousins.

There are at least half a dozen private entities reinventing space travel and while that’s thrilling it also based on some aspect of a profit motive. That has certainly been part of the equation in all exploration – from Magellan and before to NASA and beyond. This is probably not going away but it could actually get us into space even in the sci fi sense.

A friend of mine once observed that the utopia of Earth in Star Trek was not – could not be – based on some flawless ideology and the logical consequences of implementing it. Someone prior to the career of Mr. Spock had invented a machine that turned energy into matter. The cornucopian replicator solved all the quandaries of what to produce, in what manner, and for whom.

I wanted to argue with him at that point and part of me still does. Pointing to the problems in Star Trek has always bothered me and quite a bit of my thinking over the years has gone over the same steeplechase as others in fandom to mend plot holes. With Astral that’s a reminder to avoid some of them during the making of.

The Federation is not faced with the riddle of a used-up planet somehow still able to build enough ships to colonize and exploit strange new worlds. The philosophy of “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” is a direct and natural result of technology solving major sources of waste, class-based tensions, petty behaviors and so on.

The first human colony in the world(s) of Astral was Mars. There are at least four links in a chain from there to α Fornacis/Dalim where the story opens. That chain is not a disintegrating set of broken and corroding links. There is without doubt satirical value in suggesting any human destiny in space will be a series of strip-mined worlds under runaway greenhouse atmospheres but I remain more hopeful… still.


ѱφ

reductio ad absurdum…

In 1996, long before Dennis Miller became a spokesman for conservative points of view, he released a book and associated CD – both titled “The Rants”. One track in particular discussed the tendency of people to demonize and seek to marginalize to the point of exclusion any opposed group. While this behavior is not the exclusive domain of any political persuasion, Miller did – 20 years ago – target the criticism on the Right.

The rant in question traced the tendency to its (il)logical result: a kind of societal attrition. If one faction did manage to fully suppress a perceived rival, and unsurprisingly real or imagined woes do not abate, a new source of such troubles would be designated for the same tactic. Shockingly civilization would find itself confronted with the same problem. Lather, rinse, repeat. Cleanse.

Miller concluded that eventually there’d be one person left and that hateful soul would attack his own reflection. Although his ideology flipped five years later, his observation remains true. Blaming “everything that’s wrong” on ethnic, religious, or other groups never can alleviate our shared difficulties. Scapegoats and straw men could be said to have a common ancestry in this regard. (This change happened roughly the same time Miller was picked as a new commentator on Monday Night Football (ABC) but was not the cause of it.)

The world-building for Astral has prompted some speculation about political structures, economic structures, and human nature. The last of these, it is probably fair to say, will likely never change; very little in all of recorded history unfortunately does not seem to support another prediction. In the story, there is a presidential campaign in progress. (I’d decided on this plot element many months before the Brexit decision or the recent election in the United States.) The partisan rivalry is no longer between conservative and progressive views. Capitalism has been replaced though not if favor of socialism.

But there is not a homogeneous philosophy. With apologies to Gene Roddenberry, an idyllic human government seems a bit further off than 350 years. (Human nature notwithstanding, I count myself among the group who share Mr. Roddenberry’s hope.) The population on a planet in orbit around α Fornacis has a wing that some would prefer had not been included among the colonists. I’ve been calling them Kels.

In their staunch desire to be recognized as part of the Fornacid culture the Kels have adopted an emblem that reflects but is not derived from Dennis Miller’s rant in question.

split

If two circles with equal diameter overlap based on adjacent, inscribed hexagons — follow me on this one — the resulting lens could be used represent a minority, which the Kels are. A circle with the same area as this lens would be about 5.77% of the original whole. After just 25 such schisms the “majority” would be less than 50% of its original size.

About two months ago, I presented here the flags of three other factions in Astral. The Kel flag – if and when they fly one in protest – might make use of this geometric symbolism.

kel-flag-xl-anim

Fractures in community do not follow a mathematical progression and, using this formula, such situations would never reach a hermit’s confrontation with a reflection. It does, however, help make the point that we are – now and in any future, under any flag – in this together.

— If we make that choice.